Tuesday, August 02, 2022

the last book I read

Wintering by Derek Johns.

The Palmer family have just arrived in a small village in the vicinity of Glastonbury Tor. There's Jim, Margaret, and the kids, Billy and Sarah. Billy is slightly older and is probably about ten, maybe a little older, though the exact details are left fairly vague. The family previously lived in Bath and had a pretty nice comfortable middle-class life thanks to Jim's job as a car dealer, but following some unwise (and possibly slightly murky) business deals that went tits-up Jim has now been declared bankrupt and been forced to downsize. He's got a job in a gentleman's outfitters in the village run by a cousin of Margaret's.

Jim finds the new job stifling and unexciting and harbours a general resentment at his reduced circumstances, despite it being very clear that it was his greed and poor judgment that led to his bankruptcy. He's also a good-looking man in his mid-thirties with an eye for a pretty girl, and in his lunch-hour trips to the local pub catches the eye of Liz Burridge, a buxom young lass with ambitions to move on up and make something of herself beyond the stifling confines of the village, and possibly also No Better Than She Ought To Be. 

Meanwhile Billy and Sarah have started at the village school, with all the usual challenges of strict new teachers, unfamiliar lunchtime procedures and brutish classmates who want to ensure no threat to their dominance of the playground by giving you a precautionary kicking. Billy in particular is a bright and inquisitive boy and is soon fascinated by the stories surrounding Glastonbury Tor - King Arthur, Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus, all utter hogwash of course but good fun nevertheless.

Margaret, meanwhile, has struck up a friendship with Leonora Vale, the slightly witchy and eccentric lady who lives nearby, and has also tentatively involved herself with the local amateur dramatic society, who are in the early stages of preparing a production of Noël Coward's Private Lives. Margaret takes the part of Amanda, with the younger Sibyl being played by none other than Liz Burridge.

So Liz has a part in Private Lives, but is also, if you will, putting some life in Jim's private parts, when opportunity presents itself. Speaking of opportunities, Jim has also accepted a lucrative side job delivering a package for shady local character Gordon Towker to an associate of his in London: no names, no pack drill, no questions asked, etc. This provides a nice little pay day but also some worry when Towker and a couple of his associates are arrested for handling stolen goods shortly afterwards.

Meanwhile Billy is doing well at school but is starting to have certain awkward yet fascinating feelings, you know, down there. He's also getting out and about around the village increasingly independently with his schoolfriends, and on a trip out to check out the Big School that he will soon be going to spots his father in a car with Liz Burridge. He hasn't got her ankles up on the dashboard, exactly, but Billy knows enough about the world to know that they're kissing, and that they shouldn't be. 

The opening night of Private Lives rolls around, and Jim realises a few things: firstly that Margaret has interests and talents outside of making his tea and looking after his children, and secondly that she's pregnant and hasn't told him yet. In combination with his having recently assumed a greater level of responsibility at the shop (following Margaret's cousin being taken out by a stroke from which he is unlikely to fully recover) this prompts a bit of an epiphany: perhaps it's time to knuckle down, accept his culpability for the collapse of his former business and cut down on the skirt-chasing a bit.

No people turning into chimps, murders, Nazi espionage or homicidal poetry here: this is a quiet, low-key sort of story with not even a crashing spaceship to break the calm. Like many novels of this type, though, there's more to it than meets the eye and actually quite a bit going on: Jim's dalliance with Liz, brush with criminal activity, and confrontation with his past mistakes; Margaret's assertion of her independence, partly via the play, partly via her friendship with feisty old bird Leonora (and of course she knows about Jim's affair, just as she's known about most of the previous ones); Billy's sexual awakening. Sarah is the only one who doesn't have much to do beyond make up the numbers and be occasionally annoying to her brother, as younger sisters do. Will Jim's newfound maturity and devotion stick beyond the moment the next fabulous arse comes into view? Will Margaret stand for it this time if he does stray? Will Billy perfect his wanking technique in time for Big School? Who knows?

The exact date when all this is set is left slightly vague, but some references to Harold Macmillan suggest we're in the late 1950s or very early 1960s, probably slightly before (according to Philip Larkin anyway) sexual intercourse was invented and still within Britain's long post-Second World War hangover. Despite what you might call (rather unfairly I think) its relative lack of ambition I enjoyed it very much: the Somerset Levels location and some of the narrative being seen through the eyes of a young(ish) boy put me in mind of The Levels. I'd never heard of Derek Johns before picking this book up in a charity shop in Brecon last week, but supposedly this is the first book in a series of four featuring Billy at various stages of his life and collectively known as The Billy Palmer Chronicles

Monday, August 01, 2022

no fibyn, it's cribyn

We had a family holiday up near Brecon last week, in this spacious barn conversion that my parents managed to find. Aha, Brecon, you'll be thinking, well that's awfully handy for walks in the Beacons and the like, to which I would say: no shit, Sherlock. But how to get away from childcare responsibilities for the day?

As it happens there are a couple of solutions to that conundrum: one is that Nia is pretty keen to come on these walks after her triumphant debut up Pen y Fan back in November of last year. The other is the presence of grandparents who, while still pretty sprightly and up for walks, aren't necessarily going to be coming up mountains any more and who therefore might be up for hanging out with Nia's younger siblings. Alys is on the cusp of being up for this sort of stuff as well, actually, but was ruled out here after finding that she has become quite lidderally too big for her boots.

So, anyway, a mountain walk. Pen y Fan, as the highest peak in the area, exerts a strong pull, but how to get up it in a way that provides some fresh challenges? The answer lies in a combination of an idea first explored (unsuccessfully) here and one mentioned here - from the first link the idea of ascending via the Bryn Teg ridge and the steep northern side of Cribyn, and from the second the idea of taking two cars, dropping one off, and then doing a non-circular walk ending in the location where you'd left the first car. Nothing like as grand as the full east-west traverse I'd mooted there, but since we had two vehicles at our disposal we thought we'd give it a go, not least because it offered the prospect of ending the walk at a pub, rather than at a remote car park in the middle of nowhere. 

Apart from a slightly vexing walk in along lanes and farm tracks to get to the start of the ridge (which is shorter than the ones either side of it coming down from Pen y Fan and Fan y Big) the approach to Cribyn is a delight, much more so this time than last time as we weren't being smashed into the turf by gale-force winds. The sight of Cribyn ahead offers the exciting prospect of some steepness and scrambling, and there is a bit, but as almost always happens once you're actually on the ridge it's far less daunting than it seems from below. Getting from Cribyn to Pen y Fan is always a bit of a ball-ache as it involves a substantial descent and re-ascent, and to break this up the saddle between the two usually offers a good spot for a pork pie and a breather. Pen y Fan to Corn Du, by contrast, involves no more than 30-40 metres of re-ascent and once that's out of the way it's downhill all the way into Libanus, the two main walking routes peeling off the ridge to left and right about half a mile beyond Corn Du and the track along the top of Pen Milan being grassy and relatively unfrequented. There's a bit more yomping along country lanes at the end than you'd really like, but, crucially, the two-car approach allows you to park car number one right next to the Tai'r Bull in Libanus village and then pop in for a pint of Butty Bach before driving back to the Cwmgwdi car park to collect car number two. Overall walk distance was about 9.1 miles, not much more than the 8.7 miles that Nia and I did from the south side in November but accompanied by slightly more complaining towards the end, mainly (I think) due to a bit more high-level descent and re-ascent and a longer relatively uninteresting tail. So it goes.

Connoisseurs of childishly sniggersome words will note that Libanus (home of the Brecon Beacons National Park Visitor Centre, and mentioned previously in this post, mainly concerned, as so many blog posts are, with Freemasonry, mayonnaise and arses) is generally pronounced like how polite sophisticated people say Uranus, i.e. with the accent on the first syllable rather than the second. With that in mind those people may also find it amusing that the route map forms the shape of a slightly saggy arse.

Our summit photo (no need to contort oneself for a selfie as it's like Piccadilly Ruddy Circus up there on summer days and there's always someone you can get to take the photo for you) features as the last entry in a linked tweet thread featuring some Pen y Fan summit shots from yesteryear. Some general holiday photos including walk photos can be found here.

the last book I read

Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk.

Carl Streator (not, it turns out, his real name) is a journalist; in common with most journalists he is occasionally assigned stories that require delicate handling, or, to put it another way, require him to be intrusive into the private grief of others. But, hey, it's a living.

Carl's current assignment is investigating sudden infant death syndrome, or, more colloquially, cot deaths, or, since we're in the USA, crib deaths. Carl has noticed that a lot of the deaths have a common factor: the presence at the death scenes of a particular book of bedtime songs and poems open to page 27, the location of a particular lullaby of African origin. 

Carl is, it turns out, the ideal person for this particular gig, because he inadvertently killed his wife and young daughter twenty-odd years previously by reading them the same poem. And one of his early interviewees, Helen Hoover Boyle, who killed her young son with the poem in a very similar way, turns out to know a lot more about it than she's letting on, at least at first.

Once Carl gains Helen's confidence a bit more she reveals what she knows: the lullaby is an African "culling song", used to usher the old and sick peacefully into the netherworld, and somehow found its way from the private collection of a man called Basil Frankie into the publicly-available anthology that was found at the death scenes. Helen, it turns out, is in possession of a lot of Frankie's old curios and artefacts (and, we are invited to assume, may have offed him herself as revenge for allowing the song to become public) and believes the song came from a wider book of magical incantations called a grimoire which she would dearly love to get her hands on. Helen also earns a nice little living offing people to order by reading the poem to them, and Carl, whose profession has made him someone well-able to quickly memorise and regurgitate text, soon finds that he has a similar power, and carves a swathe through some unsuspecting passers-by before he can get his murderous impulses under control.

Having decided that deaths on an unprecedented scale could ensue if the poem's power ever became public knowledge, Carl and Helen (accompanied by Helen's assistant Mona and her boyfriend Oyster) set off on a cross-country road trip to find and destroy all remaining copies of the anthology in which it appears. But the prospect of the power of life and death is an intoxicating thing, and once it becomes apparent that the grimoire was in Helen's possession all along Mona and Oyster make a bid to grab its power for themselves, and Carl and Helen find themselves having to unite to thwart them.

The idea of words alone being able to kill is a fascinating one and by no means unique to Lullaby - give the delivery medium a twist to make it seeing something rather than hearing it and both the Ring film series and Infinite Jest used something very similar. Cell was closer to Lullaby's premise, though its protagonists didn't technically die (though as good as, you might argue). The closest thing I can think of, and something that fascinated me when I read a piece about it in some "real-life mysteries" book when I was a teenager, is the Hungarian song Gloomy Sunday, allegedly responsible for a swathe of suicides (mainly in Hungary - a place, it should be said, with a notoriously high suicide rate anyway) over several decades, eventually including its own composer, Rezső Seress.

So it's an interesting premise, but as enjoyable as Lullaby is I think I would tend to agree with the Guardian review here when it says that Palahniuk suggests several routes the story could take but then doesn't actually choose to explore any of them, focusing instead on a lengthy book-burning road trip. Obvious questions include: how did the poem get from Basil Frankie's private collection into the public domain? What would happen if someone with technical know-how got hold of it? Could you (and we're back in Cell territory here) broadcast it widely, maybe subliminally, hidden in another signal? Could you commit suicide by reading it to yourself, or recording it and then playing it back?

Very much like Choke, the only other Palahniuk I've read, this is very funny and full of sharp pop-culture references but oddly meandering and unfocused once the central premise has been established. One associated piece of trivia: Jack Palance's real name was Palahniuk (it's Ukrainian - I mean, his name wasn't "Jack" either, to be fair) and they were apparently distantly related.